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With Pact’s help, ‘Ukraine’s Jon Stewart’ promotes tolerance, citizen engagement and critical government reforms

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by Corinne Reilly

Two years ago, most Ukrainians had never heard of Roman Vintoniv. Now he rarely goes a day without a stranger on the street recognizing his black-framed glasses and signature blonde mustache and asking for a photo or a handshake.

But it isn’t Vintoniv who is famous. It’s Michael Schur, the dim-witted, Borat-esque character Vintoniv created in 2012 while working as a journalist in Kiev. He’d had it with the country’s politicians, with their unwillingness to answer basic questions, and with Ukraine’s obvious, widespread government corruption.

“I wanted to show people the truth and make them care about it,” Vintoniv says. “I couldn’t do that as myself. It had to be funny.”

Thus was born Michael Schur, a naïve Canadian reporter of Ukrainian descent who decides to return to a motherland he knows nothing about and explore its politics. As Michael Schur, Vintoniv sought interviews with top Ukrainian officials. Believing they’d be speaking with a foreign journalist, the politicians accepted.

With a few friends who were helping him, Vintoniv posted the interviews on YouTube in late 2012 in the form of six short episodes of a program they titled, “Ukraine, How Do You Live?” The content – sometimes awkward but always hilarious – was reminiscent of the semi-fake news reports for which “The Daily Show” is known. As Michael Schur, the ignorant outsider, Vintoniv asked simple but bold questions that perfectly nailed the absurdities and outrages of Ukrainian politics and governance, from secrecy and corruption to the use of propaganda and Russia’s undue influence.

Michael Schur was a hit, so Vintoniv and his friends decided to keep him alive. They launched a new show called “But There is One But,” a digest of television news also similar to “The Daily Show.” Using borrowed cameras and still working their day jobs, they posted new 5- to 7-minute episodes online as often as they could.

In late 2013 and early 2014, Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution swept the country. President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted and a new interim government was created. Michael Schur’s popularity was growing – the revolution centered on many of the issues Vintoniv was highlighting, and he’d been a fixture among the protesters – but on the internet he still wasn’t reaching a mainstream audience.

In the spring of 2014, as Ukraine was preparing to elect a new president, Pact partnered with Vintoniv and the Michael Schur team to boost their impact.

Funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, Pact’s UNITER program has supported pro-reform civil society organizations and activists in Ukraine since 2008. In addition to financial grants, Pact provides training and mentorship to Ukrainian NGOs that are promoting democracy, government transparency and accountability, European integration and citizen involvement.

“What drew us to Roman and Michael Schur was the connection he was making with the public,” says Mariia Nasiedkina, a Pact program officer. “He’s authentic, real and so smart about how he simplifies complex, important issues. He was reaching people in a way that speaks to citizens’ hearts. During Soviet times, sarcasm and satire were the hidden code to critique the system, and Ukrainians still understand this code best.”

Within a few months, Vintoniv was on Ukraine’s most popular state television channel, known as UT1, where he covered the news of the day and highlighted post-revolution reform efforts, educating viewers about their importance and value. He also chose guests and topics aimed at building tolerance among Ukrainians, such as for the country’s gay community.

The show maintained the authentic feel of Michael Schur’s online videos – the team continued to shoot in a dusty basement on a shoestring budget – but with a Pact grant, they were able to make full episodes that aired every Saturday night. Pact also connected the team with a messaging consultant, other Pact partners and reforms experts. “UT1 with Michael Schur” quickly became one of the channel’s most popular shows.

“I think our biggest accomplishment has been increasing the number of people in Ukraine who are interested in politics, paying attention and caring about issues and their country,” says Eugene Samoylenko, a friend of Vintoniv’s who has been part of the Michael Schur team from the beginning. “A main reason things are changing in Ukraine is because citizens cared enough to make it happen.”

Pact supports civil society organizations that are working directly on government reforms, but just as important, Nasiedkina says, is UNITER’s support of initiatives that are building an informed and engaged Ukrainian citizenry – a critical component of democracy.

Beyond informing people, Nasiedkina says, Vintoniv has set a powerful example of how citizens can take part in improving their country.

“Rather than accepting things as they were,” she says, “Roman found a creative way to make change and do something. Building this way of thinking among people is a big part of UNITER. It’s a big change compared to the Soviet mentality.”

A modest, mild-mannered 33-year-old who grew up in Ukraine and is married with a new daughter, Vintoniv has little in common with over-the-top Michael Schur, except, perhaps, his sense of purpose.

“What we do is funny,” says Vintoniv, wearing jeans, a t-shirt and Vans sneakers, “but we take it very seriously.”

He says he worried in the beginning that Michael Schur would stop working as soon as people figured out he wasn’t real.

“But real or not real – that’s not what makes him good,” Vintoniv says. “It’s what he talks about.”

Starring in a hit political TV show couldn’t be further from what Vintoniv is doing now: Just as “UT1 with Michael Schur” was finishing its season in July, he was called for a year of military service, which is mandatory for Ukrainian men.

Not surprisingly, though, it hasn’t stopped him from taking on issues. On his Facebook page, Vintoniv shares photos and short videos about life and conditions in the military. His posts highlighting a lack of fresh, healthy food for service members recently prompted officials to make changes.

As for what will come after his year of service, Vintoniv and his friends are already talking through possibilities.

“We’ve got some ideas,” he says with a grin.